#7 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (12-7)
Opponent: Harvard (6-7)
When: Saturday, March 11, 2017, 7:00 PM PT
Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Streaming Video: UCLA Live Stream
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
We're in Pauley for one last time this regular season for an out of conference match up vs. Harvard. First serve is at 7PM #GoBruins pic.twitter.com/t0s2u8NUfF— UCLA M. Volleyball (@UCLAMVB) March 11, 2017
After watching UCLA's season unravel during an injury-plagued February, Bruins fans may be wondering if there's anything left to play for in the regular season other than winning a couple of the remaining conference games to ensure qualification for the MPSF Tournament. With just four conference games left, the Bruins are too far behind BYU and Long Beach State to have any hope of winning the regular season title. Given that UCLA will probably have to beat both the 49ers and the Cougars--the second- and third-ranked teams in the nation--to win the conference tournament and the prize of an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, UCLA's path to the national championship game is tenuous to say the least.
But that may not be the only way the Bruins can claim a spot in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. While it may seem unlikely after a month of disappointing results, UCLA can still earn an at-large bid, It won't be easy, though, and it would likely require UCLA to win all of its remaining regular season games, as well as getting to the MPSF Tourney final. As I said, it's not an easy task, but there's reason to believe that it's possible.
To begin with, UCLA took a huge step towards establishing its credentials for an at-large bid when it defeated #5 Lewis 3-1 on Wednesday. Lewis then traveled across town and was swept by the lowly Trojans, which seriously dented their claim to be one of the nation's top teams. If Lewis loses again tonight when it plays UCSB, the Flyers could drop out of the top-10, and would almost certainly fall behind the Bruins as a candidate for an at-large bid.
In that scenario, the Bruins are competing with #4 Hawai'i, #6 UCI. and #8 Stanford for the last at-large bid. Fortunately, UCLA still has a pair of home matches to play against Hawai'i, and if the Bruins can pick up two victories against the Rainbow Warriors, that could be enough for UCLA to leapfrog Hawai'i in the AVCA Coaches Poll. The Rainbow Warriors also still have a couple of matches to play against BYU in Provo, so it's very possible for UCLA to catch Hawai'i in the MPSF standings too.
Meanwhile, Stanford and Irvine still have to play each other twice before the end of the regular season, so it's quite possible for the Bruins to finish ahead of both of them in the MPSF. That would put the Bruins in the driver's seat for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, assuming that they can win a couple of matches in the conference tournament.
Of course, for that scenario to work, UCLA absolutely can't afford to lose to an unranked team like Harvard. That's not to say that Coach Speraw doesn't have other issues to sort out heading into tonight's match. As we've seen recently, Coach Speraw has utilized a 5-1 in UCLA's last two matches, and the Bruins have a pair of wins to show for it.
It's hard to say if Coach Speraw will continue to use the 5-1 and, for that matter, who will be the first-choice setter if he sticks with a 5-1. But the benefits of employing a 5-1 are clear: the Bruins are substantially taller with 6'5" Christian Hessenauer at opposite.
With the return of OH Jake Arnitz from injury, Coach Speraw also has a tough decision to make between JT Hatch and Dylan Missry at the other outside hitter spot. Missry played well in Arnitz' absence and is a better blocker than Hatch, but JT is a better hitter and server and has a lot more experience. It's a position battle to keep an eye on for the rest of the month.
Given the Bruins' predicament, it's fair to say that tonight's contest against Harvard is effectively a must-win match for UCLA. With just a month left before postseason play begins, the Bruins still have a shot at returning to the NCAA Tournament, but it will very likely require UCLA to go unbeaten in its last seven regular season games.